Can you really tell the difference between fancy salt and the regular kind? Harold McGee knows

Can you really tell the difference between fancy salt and the regular kind? Harold McGee knows

We’ve always wondered if there really is a difference between that expensive gourmet salt and the good old-fashioned salt shaker variety. Doesn’t it all just kind of taste, well, salty? Author Harold McGee, of On Food and Cooking fame, takes up the matter in a recent New York Times article, and his findings are mixed: yes, some salts do taste more or less salty than others, with hints of flavour from other ingredients, but only if one has developed a hypersensitive palette (which, we assume, McGee has). A few highlights, and a few salty facts, after the jump.

While taking a half-serious scientific look at salt, McGee gets a little excited around all the “obfuscatory hype” surrounding salt debates, in particular the concept of “organic salt.” He notes, “despite being a mineral and thus inorganic by definition, a sea salt from New Zealand has somehow been certified organic.” McGee also pokes fun at the (inaptly named) salt expert and purveyor Mark Bitterman, who summons some pretty florid descriptions for different varieties. “In his recent book Salted … Mr. Bitterman offers vivid tasting notes,” McGee writes. “He describes the flavor of pink Murray River salt, for example, as ‘distinct sunshine sweetness; tingle of warm minerals.’” And the flavor of kosher salt? “Metal; hot extract of bleach-white paper towel; aerosol fumes.” Bitterman is not a fan.

McGee goes on to summarize a scientific study which looked at 38 salts from all over the world. A trained panel of tasters was only able to detect about 10 different tastes and smells—“many fewer than the wine-like profusion of qualities celebrated by salt specialists.” Still, he points out that some specialty salts can more or less salty than regular old sodium chloride. McGee also discusses unpublished findings from an experiment in which non-expert tasters were asked to taste batches of five foods flavoured with different kinds of salt. Apparently, “tasters significantly preferred chicken broth and bratwurst made with an inexpensive white sea salt over the ones made with kosher salt.”

McGee’s conclusion? “Considered together, the two studies suggest that it would take an unusually sensitive palate to be offended by the taste of ordinary salt, or to notice a difference in foods prepared with different salts.” McGee’s insight probably won’t stop us from reaching for our box of Maldon Salt come dinnertime, but it might give us pause.

In Salts, a Pinch of Bali or a Dash of Spain [New York Times]

(Images: McGee, Warren In the Weeds; salt, Naama ym)